It Sounds Wrong, but it’s Right

rogersgeorge on December 12th, 2017

Okay, the intransitive verb “lie-lay-lain” is one we often get wrong in the present tense. We say “I’m gonna go lay down,” when we mean “I’m gonna go lie down.” (note there’s no direct object.)  “Lie,” the correct word, sounds okay even when we often say “lay.”

Ah, but the past tense of lie, which is “lay,” sounds wrong even when it’s correct! I think we’re just too used to something like a “-d” at the end of past tense verbs. Here’s a guy (Mike Peterson of Comic Strip of the Day for December 7, 2017) using it correctly. It’s the past tense:

He may not have been the worst of the lot, but he lay down with the dogs and now he’s getting up with the fleas.

Sorry, he’s right. It’s “lay.” “Laid” is wrong. I suppose Mike could have written, “…he laid his body down with the dogs…” That would be a little strange, but also grammatical.

The rule: “lay” is past tense of “lie.” Deal with it.

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Another Lie-Lay Post

rogersgeorge on March 11th, 2016

I’m cleaning out my saddlebags, and this two-year-old goody turned up. If you read this blog with any regularity at all, you probably have the lay-lie problem down pat, but here’s a comic about it, so I’ll share.


The strip is called Pickles.

Remember, lie is intransitive. That means you can use it all by itself. Lay is transitive, which means it has to have a direct object. When you go to bed, you lie down. You can lay your head on the pillow, though. Lay the stick on the fire. Now it lies on the coals. So far so good.

So far this has all been in the present tense. The problem is when we get to the past tense. The past tense of lie is lay! So you have to watch the context to figure out the tense. For example,

Yesterday he lay on the couch all day.

Doesn’t sound right, does it? Lots of verbs put a –d at the end for the past tense, and we’re used to hearing that, so we tend to put a -d on the end of lie, but lied is already taken! it’s the past tense of lie meaning to tell an untruth, as in the comic. Maybe the solution is to try use the past progressive:

Yesterday he was lying on the couch all day.

Or the past perfect,

Yesterday he had lain on the couch all day.

Lay isn’t so bad. Its past tense is laid. There’s that -d to make a past tense verb:

He laid his head on the pillow.

Practice, and you’ll get the hang of it. Jot yourself a note and tape it to the wall where you can look at it whenever you want a reminder.

Lie Lay, Lain. Lie on the bed.

Lay Laid, Laid. Lay your head.

Maybe you want to sleep on it.


PS: Wouldn’t you know, Pickles had a follow-up:

Pillow talk

rogersgeorge on December 6th, 2011

My wife suggested I post this conversation, no lie. And no pictures, either.

Recently I mentioned how to use the verbs “lie” and “lay.” “Lie” is intransitive—it doesn’t take a direct object. When you stretch out on the bed, you lie down. “Lay” is transitive—it takes a  direct object. You lay the book on the bed. Recently also I posted the hundredth post on this humble site, a post about good writing.

One fine evening, as we prepared for bed, my dear sweet wife and I were talking about the hundredth post on The Writing Rag, and things grammatical in general. As we lay there (past tense of lie), she complained that due to some recent minor surgery “I wish I could lay on my left side.” I waited two beats and said “It’s lie,” and fortunately for my life, she laughed (I long ago learned never to correct someone’s grammar unasked). Then she turned toward me, and asked, with a twinkle in her eye, “So do you wanna get laid or do you wanna get lied?”

Ah, yes, the life of a grammarian can be exciting. The question was strictly academic, of course.